Writing the title to this piece caused me genuine distress. I like Mrs May. I don’t know her well, but I have seen her on and off since the day, twenty eight years ago, when she, our local councillor, knocked on our door and asked whether we would like to join the Wimbledon Conservatives. She and Philip were very pleasant fellow guests at dinner parties. Eventually, they left Wimbledon because she had become a Parliamentary candidate elsewhere. I rejoiced at her success when she was elected. But I didn’t see much of her after that, though we had friends in common who reported to us on her progress. And then, of course, she became Home Secretary and everyone had heard of her. When she became Prime Minister I admit I was very nervous. I didn’t doubt her competence, but I wondered how someone who had never held a political opinion in her life could cope with the demands of her new office. I was also worried because I knew that, in the Home Office, she had gone native, she had convinced herself that that department’s civil servants, the most authoritarian in the land, could never be wrong about anything. That wasn’t her fault. She should never have been left in the same post for so long. But she was, and that has had a lasting effect.
I like Mrs May. I can’t say the same about Ted Heath. As it happens I saw quite a lot of Mr Heath in the summer of 1974. I was the Conservative Party agent for the constituency of Maldon in Essex. One of the towns in the constituency was Burnham-on-Crouch. Every year Mr Heath came to Burnham for its famous sailing regatta. But he never, until 1974, mixed politics with sailing. 1974 was different. The Tories had been narrowly defeated in the general election of February that year. There was a minority Labour government. There was bound to be another election soon. Mr Heath broke his rule about mixing sailing and politics. Conservative Central Office informed me that I had to organise a series of political events for Mr Heath to attend in the evenings. I think I did rather well, though you would not have thought so from Mr Heath’s treatment of me. He was consistently brusque, even rude, to me, wholly ungrateful for all the extra work I put in for him. I eventually worked it out. He realised that I was my father’s son. Although he and my father had been firm friends before he became leader of the Conservative Party, all had changed from that moment. He, Heath, had known that my father, sometimes known as the political voice of the Daily Telegraph, had not been convinced that Heath would be the ideal leader of the Tories. The Christmas card list was summoned. The name Utley was ceremoniously struck out. It was hardly surprising that a man who was the world’s expert at harbouring grudges should have taken instantly against my father’s son.
Mrs May is plainly a pleasant and well-intentioned woman. Mr Heath was, pretty obviously, a rather horrid man with no charm at all. But the Tory grass roots hate Mrs May and they adored Mr Heath. Two questions arise: how do I know what Tory grass roots think and thought, and; assuming I am right, why did they and do they think as I say?
It is trite for political journalists to say that the Conservative Party is viciously competent at getting rid of its leaders. But, in fact, there are very few examples of that happening. Go back to the War. Chamberlain had to go, but that was because the Labour Party, not the Tories, were opposed to him (some Tories were, but not a majority of them). Churchill remained leader of the Conservative Party, a post he assumed after Chamberlain’s death, until 1955. When he resigned he was very old and not at all well. His resignation was not brought about by vicious Conservatives trying to get rid of him. It was his friends who finally convinced him that he simply wasn’t physically fit enough to do the job. The next one to go was Eden. But he really had no choice. Suez finished him. There was no need for a vicious Conservative Party to do anything. Macmillan resigned because he thought he had prostate cancer (which he did not). Vicious Tories played no part. Alec Douglas-Home, a gentleman if there ever was one, just knew that, having lost the 1964 election, he had to give way to someone else. And that brings us to Heath.
He lost two general elections in 1974. Almost every Tory MP with a brain knew that his mad commitment to a command economy was a disaster. There had to be a new leader. But Heath was having none of it. He was determined to remain leader of his party. And so, for the first time ever, there was to be an election for the leadership of the Conservative Party in which the existing leader was to be a candidate.
This is where I come in. I was still Conservative agent in Maldon. Although members of the party in the country had no vote in the leadership election, they were to be consulted. I was required to conduct the consultation in the Maldon constituency. I conducted a thorough consultation. What I discovered was that there was a large majority which wanted the awful Heath to remain in office. The same message came from other constituencies. The grass roots, extreme loyalists, could not bear the thought of the sitting leader being deposed.
Because it is relevant to what I have to say later, I should record that the correspondence columns of the Daily Telegraph did have some anti-Heath letters, but there were just as many pro.
Margaret Thatcher was next. She was another first because, when the vicious MPs got their knives out, she was actually Prime Minister. You don’t need me to tell you that the grass roots were almost unanimous in supporting her. And, as you know, the Telegraph’s letters were mostly pro-Thatcher.
We’re almost there, but we still have Mr Major to deal with. He created an unnecessary leadership election in 1995 because he was fed up with the people he called “bastards” (MPs who did not share his love of European bureaucracy). He won that election with ease and, as before, the grass roots remained loyal to the existing leader.
Major lost the 1997 general election and immediately resigned as leader. We then had a series of Tory leaders who tended to lose elections or lose the confidence of the Parliamentary Party. They all resigned without trying to hang on to the leadership.
Then we had Cameron. As you know, he resigned as a result of the failure of his “project fear” during the referendum campaign. We were then given Mrs May.
What I hope you have noticed is that the only leaders who tried to hang onto their jobs when challenged for the leadership (Heath, Thatcher and Major) had considerable support from the grass root membership of the Conservative Party even though, in each case, there were quite a few MPs who disagreed.
Mrs May has not, yet, had to face a leadership challenge. But that may happen soon. And, if it does, the extraordinary thing seems to be that she will probably have almost no support from the grass roots of her party. The old loyalty to the sitting leader would appear to be a thing of the past.
How do I know that? Well, of course, I don’t. I could be wrong, but all the signs suggest I am right. I say, at once, that I pay no attention whatsoever to the social media obsessives. Anyone who thinks you can judge public opinion by reading the rantings of people who spend their lives on Twitter or Face Book should probably consult a psychiatrist. Neither would I think it helpful to consult the correspondence columns, if they have them, of the Daily Mail or the Sun, But, if you really want to know what Tory grass roots are thinking, you should look no further than the letters in the Daily Telegraph.
Since the Chequers “Deal” (why do we have to call it that when the other party has given no indication that it will agree to a single word of it?), the letters page of the Telegraph has carried a seemingly never ending stream of letters from Tory voters (not grand MPs or Peers) almost all of which portray Mrs May as a traitor to her party and, some, to her country. Some attack her relatively politely, others are embarrassingly rude. But all have no doubt that she is a complete and utter disaster as Prime Minister. All, that is, except (I think this is right) two. Two brave souls, in the great tradition of Tory loyalty, have rather sweetly expressed their support for the Prime Minister.
Ah, you say, shouldn’t I understand that the Telegraph cherry picks the letters? The published ones are surely not representative of the unpublished. Of course, I know the Telegraph is not the honourable ‘paper it used to be. But I have no doubt at all that Christopher Howse (the correspondence editor) is entirely honest and reliable. Mr Howse has confirmed that the letters which have been printed in the paper are absolutely representative of the thousands which pour into the ‘paper every day. I believe him.
I say again that this makes me sad. It just seems so unfair that Heath, a thoroughly nasty man who did his utmost to ruin our economy, should have had such enormous support from the grass roots when Mrs May, an exceptionally nice woman, is so despised by them. And, after all, Heath was a passionate supporter of rule from Brussels (something they now hate) while Mrs May, almost certainly (though it is always difficult to discern an opinion from her), thinks it just possible that the United Kingdom could survive outside the EU.